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AUSTRALIA
Scientific ties that bind?
Governments in Asia are spending big on science, technology and innovation to drive their economies. These governments also recognise that investing in system reforms alone is not enough. Spending on having programmes that help strengthen links is also important.

Can closer international scientific ties help strengthen international links? The Royal Society in London thinks so.

International scientific collaboration helps maintain pathways for communication between countries where ties are weak. Israel and the United States had 388 joint publications between 1996 and 2002. Despite political tensions, bilateral publications increased to 1,831 between 2004 and 2008.

Science meets liberal arts…

Science is a global enterprise. The Royal Society estimates that in 2011 there were over seven million researchers worldwide. Their combined research and development (R&D) spend is over US$1 trillion.

Scientists want to work with the best. They also want to access the best research facilities to help solve difficult problems. These challenges can range from energy, food and water to climate change and population growth.

But science is not only global, it is also becoming multidisciplinary.

Lauren Palmer from the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering agrees. In the Australian Economic Review, Palmer suggests that a robust policy framework helps address challenges. But the framework must be evidence-led.

Palmer also says that big challenges need multidisciplinary collaboration – scientists working with researchers from the humanities, arts and social sciences disciplines. This in itself is a challenge. Limited support and availability of programmes discourage such a multidisciplinary approach.

Palmer points to the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project as examples of successful international collaboration.

The Human Genome Project involves 20 institutions across six countries – Japan, China, France, Germany, Great Britain and the United States. The original goal was to map the human genes within 15 years. Research was completed two years earlier than anticipated.

A multidisciplinary approach was an important element. Funding involved studying the legal, ethical and social issues related to the study of human genes. “It’s the world’s largest bioethics study and a model for studying ethical, legal and social issues”, says Palmer.

Enabling collaborations

What drives international collaboration?

Researchers seeking to access new knowledge, resources and funding opportunities to meet their research objectives are primary drivers, according to Sooho Lee and Barry Bozeman from the Georgia Institute of Technology. “Whilst not all collaborative efforts are equal, some collaborations can greatly enhance productivity,” say Lee and Bozeman.

The OECD’s Science, Technology and Industry Scoreboard 2013 backs Lee and Bozeman and the view that collaboration helps increase the quality of the research by bringing different skills, knowledge and viewpoints. Moreover, it also has larger citation impact and produces high quality publications.

Collaboration is becoming easier. Advances in information and communication technologies with cheaper and easier travel makes linkages easy. Technology also enables researchers building relationships and networks.

Palmer says Europe’s approach serves as a good example. The European Cooperation in Science and Technology, COST, offers an inter-governmental framework for collaboration. COST funds researchers across fields and networks. It also promotes researcher mobility, short-term scientific missions and researcher training schools across Europe.

Leveraging geography and networks

Is Australia poorly networked? The Australian government thinks so. “Australia is a poor collaborator by international standards,” it says.

According to a recent Innovation System Report, the country’s university and industry links rank poorly. So does its international collaboration. Increasing collaboration – both nationally and internationally – and improving connections within the national innovation system may help Australia remain competitive and become a desired destination for collaboration.

Australia connecting abroad does have its impediments. Palmer cites the obvious – Australia’s geographical isolation. Its isolation becomes even more striking without adequate resourcing.

Australia lacks long-term and strategic funding to support enhanced collaboration, especially with Asia. Past programmes such as the International Science Linkages programme no longer exist.

There are also warning signs ahead.

Australia is facing potential skills shortages in some science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – disciplines. In 2012, Engineers Australia warned that Australia is not producing enough engineers to meet the country’s future needs. Skilled migration is helping fill this deficit. But Australia is still not producing enough of its own STEM graduates.

As Asia rises, Australia should bolster its science and technology links with the region, says Palmer. By 2025 four of the 10 largest economies will be in the Asian region – China, Japan, India and Indonesia.

Asian economies are investing in science and technology and establishing world-class research infrastructure. Japan and Korea follow the United States and China as large research and development performers. China and India are at the forefront of some science and technology fields.

Palmer points to a striking weakness in foreign policy.

Australia is not leveraging its growing regional alumni networks. Approximately 80% of international students studying in Australia are from countries in Asia. Australia is training the next generation of science and technology researchers and bureaucrats. What it fails to do is develop long-term interactions with its untapped network.

* Eugene Sebastian is director of global initiatives at Monash University, Australia.
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